INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – In the end, continuity apparently won out over change. Again.
In the end, Jim Irsay apparently considered his options – stay the course with Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano, or opt for new leadership – and wasn’t spurred to action by an 8-8 record and failing to reach the postseason. Again.
For at least another season, the Indianapolis Colts apparently will go as far as Grigson, the general manager with the checkered five-year personnel history, and Pagano, the head coach whose defense remains in tatters, take them.
As first reported by Sporting News’ Alex Marvez, Pagano has been assured he’ll return for 2017. Subsequently, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported Grigson also will return.
There has been no confirmation from the team’s Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance Headquarters. The clear stance: each is under contract through 2019, so no confirmation is necessary.
Yet anyone insisting there never has been a question of job security for Grigson and Pagano haven’t been paying attention to the man calling the shots. While it’s risky business to read tea leaves when the cup belongs to Irsay, he left the door of change ajar when he talked with USA Today in mid-December at the owners meetings in Houston.
“Right now, I’m not anticipating making any changes,” he said. “That can always change. It always can when we’re sitting down at the end of the year and evaluate things.
“But I’m just looking and seeing if we can win these next three games and get some luck from the football gods right now.”
Those comments came on the heels of the Colts’ playoff hopes absorbing what amounted to a deathblow: a 22-17 loss to the Houston Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium. It dropped them to 6-7 and enabled the Texans to place a stranglehold on the AFC South.
The Colts won two of their last three, but it was déjà vu all over again. An 8-8 record. Missing the playoffs. It marked the first time since 1997-98 the franchise failed to reach consecutive postseasons.
At an awkward season-ending press conference the day after Sunday’s 24-20 win over Jacksonville, Pagano said he expected to return even though he had yet to meet with Irsay.
“That’s the plan,” he said.
That’s also the last time the topic has been broached by team.
Irsay has not commented despite constant requests from the media and growing unrest with his fan base.
By contrast, the Detroit Lions confirmed coach Jim Caldwell would return and the New York Jets did likewise with Todd Bowles. Late-season speculation had swirled around both.
What can’t be overstated is Irsay’s overriding commitment to continuity, which is in stark contrast to the volatile disposition of Robert Irsay, his late father.
However, it must be noted Jim Irsay explored his options 12 months ago before giving Pagano a four-year contract and Grigson a three-year extension. He at least kicked the tires on the availability of New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton.
But on more than one occasion during that hastily-called Jan. 2, 2016 press conference, Irsay talked of the importance of staying the course.
“Yes, continuity plays a role. It’s important,” he said. “I think it’s important to be thoughtful and lean on continuity when you can and . . . Chuck has earned the opportunity going forward. Ryan, also, is contractually tied with Chuck going forward and we’re set.
“I couldn’t be more excited. Again, it was always my hope that this is the direction that we would head, but I had to be sure.”
In September, Irsay revisited The Decision. Everything, he insisted, was done in the best interest of the franchise.
“It’s about winning,” he said. “We have to win in our business. You try to make sure you’re making the toughest decisions if need be to win, and I think Ryan and Chuck understand that.”
Irsay added “. . . the football gods, whatever you want to call it, the powers that be, created this correct synergy that said, ‘OK, Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano, they are going to be our guys going forward and there is no question about it.”’
As Grigson and Pagano head into their sixth season as stewards of Irsay’s franchise, they’ll do so with heightened scrutiny. And the focus will sharpen if the Colts get off to a third consecutive 0-2 start in September.
Grigson was named NFL Executive of the Year following the Colts’ dramatic turnaround from 2-14 in 2011 to 11-5 and a wild-card playoff berth in ’12. But while his five-year resume includes some solid personnel moves (Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener, Jerrell Freeman, Vontae Davis, Jack Mewhort, Ryan Kelly, Frank Gore), it’s marred with costly mistakes (Trent Richardson, LaRon Landry, Andre Johnson, Bjoern Werner, Gosder Cherilus, Art Jones).
Pagano has a 52-34 overall record, which represents the fourth-most wins in club history behind Tony Dungy (92), Don Shula (73) and Weeb Ewbank (61). But after three straight 11-5 seasons, his Colts are 16-16.
Under Pagano’s leadership in the regular season, the Colts are 23-7 against the lackluster AFC South, but 26-24 against the rest of the league. Most damning, they’re 0-5 against New England, including a pair of playoff blowouts, and 0-3 against Pittsburgh. The average loss to the Patriots: 44.6-20. The average loss to the Steelers: 41.3-17.
The current regimen has yet to solve two core issues: protecting Luck and fielding a competent defense.
Luck has been sacked 156 times and hit approximately 500 times in 70 regular-season games. He absorbed 41 sacks this season, matching the total from his rookie season. The constant abuse was evident this season as he missed one game with a concussion and constantly was on the injury report with injuries to his right shoulder and right elbow.
Despite Pagano’s defensive background, his Colts have routinely ranked in the bottom third of the league in total yards allowed and rushing yards allowed. This season, the defense was 30th in yards (382.9) and 25th against the run (120.4).
Most telling is three of the worst four seasons in Colts history in yards allowed per game have occurred on the watch of Grigson and Pagano: 382.9 in ’16 (No. 2), 379.1 in ’15 (No. 3) and 374.3 in ’12 (No. 4). Only the 1981 defense (424.6) was worse from a statistical standpoint.
In his season-ending press conference, Pagano was asked why he believed he could help return the Colts to prominence.
“Faith and belief,” he said. “We have a quarterback that I think is the best quarterback in the league. We’ve got a bunch of young offensive linemen that are on the come. A bunch of young defensive players that are going to get better through time.
“I think continuity is huge. Sometimes you have to go through some stuff to get places. Winning, winning, winning and making the playoffs and getting all the way to the AFC Championship and having the disappointing loss there and then to have back-to-back 8-8 seasons, I think every player would tell you – I would tell you and every coach would tell you – that’s not where you want to be.
“It’s disappointing and it’s not acceptable and we have to be better and we will. We’ll keep working until we get there.”